All-female panel of Aug. 11 and 12 survivors, local activists talks white privilege, social justice efforts

The Gregory H. Swanson Award was presented to Law student Michele St Julien

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The event was hosted for the evening by the University Center for the Study of Race and Law.

Courtesy University of Virginia

Over 100 people packed into Caplin Pavilion at the School of Law Jan. 31 to attend “The Hard Work of Social Justice: A Conversation with Women of August 11 and 12,” an all-female panel comprised of local social justice activists and survivors of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Aug. 2017. 

The event was hosted for the evening by the University Center for the Study of Race and Law and was preceded by a screening of the documentary “Charlottesville,” a film highlighting the events of Aug. 11 and 12 and social justice in the city. The event was part of the University’s celebration of Martin Luther King Day and was intentionally comprised only of women to align with this year’s theme, “Women in the Movement.” Past themes include “Silence as Betrayal” in 2017 and “Be the Difference” in 2018. 

Eight women served as panelists: activist and Aug. 12 survivor Marissa K. Blair, Susan D. Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer — the counterprotestor who was struck and killed when James Alex Fields, Jr. drove a car into a crowd gathered on Aug. 12 — Charlottesville High School student and activist Zyahna Bryant, Law Prof. Anne Coughlin, activist Tanesha Hudson, Associate Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, Assoc. Prof. of Religious Studies Jalane Schmidt and Law student Adele Stichel. The panel was moderated by Law Prof. Dayna Bowen Matthew.

Prior to the panel, the University presented the Gregory H. Swanson Award to Law student Michele St Julien. The accolade is awarded to a University Law student who demonstrates “courage, perseverance and a commitment to justice” and who honors the memory of Gregory Swanson, the first black student admitted to the University in 1950 and a prominent civil rights activist.

“Martin Luther King Day is about remembering the ugliness, the sacrifices and the injustices and inequalities of the past as much as it is about celebrating what Martin Luther King did himself, and so many others including Heather and those in this room did, have done and continue to do to make, as Martin Luther King said, the arc of the universe bend toward justice,” Law Dean Risa L. Goluboff said.

Goluboff praised the accomplishments of St Julien — which include a pro bono volunteer position for the Virginia Innocence Project, a yearlong program through the School of Law in which students investigate wrongful convictions, and community outreach work. Goluboff also commended the dedication and work of the panelists. 

All panelists discussed the need for members of the University and greater Charlottesville communities to use this event as a catalyst to take more action and facilitate a conversation around the racial inequities structurally ingrained in American society. 

“A lot of people want to sweep things under the rug and not bring it to the forefront,” Blair said. “And speaking out against it you’re going to meet a lot of resistance from people who just don’t want to talk about it. So in order to make everyone feel comfortable, we are going to have to make people uncomfortable first.”

However, panelists also expressed the importance of moving beyond discussion and towards becoming more active and engaged advocates of social justice. They emphasized the need for privileged members of society — specifically those who are white and have greater socioeconomic standing — to utilize their economic and social capital to enact change and become better listeners when trying to help minority communities. 

“We need to say ‘I am sorry’ and ‘how can I help you,’” Bro said. “Not ‘how can I take charge of you.’ Not ‘how can I do it for you.’ Not ‘how can I lead you,’ but ‘how can I help you.’”

Stichel acknowledged her own white privilege during the panel and encouraged other white individuals to not only recognize their privilege but to amend for it by giving back to their communities through service and donating money to social justice organizations and causes. 

Bro also referenced white privilege when discussing the worldwide outrage that arose after her daughter’s death, saying that she endeavored to utilize her privilege to redirect resources to civil rights advocates in the community. 

“The truth is, we don’t pay attention until someone who looks like us hurts,” Bro said. “I deeply appreciate the honor and the platform that people give me so that I can use it to redirect back, but these ladies who have grown up in Charlottesville and Nelson County and all around there, they have been doing work for years, for generations, in Charlottesville and we don’t pay attention until a white girl dies. That’s a tragedy.”

Another topic that arose during the conversation was the panelists’ frustration with the Charlottesville police and University response to the events of Aug. 11 and 12. Local activist Tanesha Hudson talked about how to many, local police failed to fulfill their responsibility to protect counterprotesters and how local police treat white people and black people extremely differently in Charlottesville. 

“[The police] didn’t want to do anything because the world thinks that white people don’t commit crimes,” Hudson said. “The world thinks that white is right and everything else is wrong. And if you were there that day, like some of us on this panel were, then you would have seen that the police did absolutely nothing.”

In April 2018, The Cavalier Daily found that individuals who identify as black or African American were affected at roughly a nine times higher rate than the white residents of Charlottesville by CPD’s stop and frisk policies — a statistic many see as an example of how attitudes towards different racial groups in Charlottesville vary in law enforcement.

Both Coughlin and Bryant echoed many of Hudson’s complaints against the police and University. Coughlin claimed that the University and both University and Charlottesville police acted as barriers in her investigation and collection of evidence against white supremacists, who brandished lit tiki torches on the Lawn. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, it is a felony to light objects on fire in a public space as a means of intimidation. 

Bryant expressed frustration over what she believes to be a lack of inaction and a lack of continuous conversations on white supremacy on the University’s side. 

“The University was well aware of what was to come, but they chose not to act on it,” Bryant said. “And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I feel like the University only wants to talk about white supremacy when it’s convenient.… We have to continue to have these conversations and not just when there is a check involved.” 

The panelists shared their vision for a better Charlottesville and a better America and gave concrete advice to the audience of how individuals could become more involved in social justice, such as ensuring that their school board and the organizations their children participate in are diverse. In addition, all of the women spoke of their aspirations for a world characterized by greater compassion, kindness and a demand for equality of opportunity. 

“I dream of a world and a country with no borders and no walls,” Bryant said. “With prisons that do not disproportionately incarcerate black and brown people.... I envision a society where people who look like me and traditionally marginalized people do not have to fight to be heard.”

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